WXXI dates its origins to July 2, 1984, when it signed on with its current mix of NPR news programming, local news and talk, and public affairs programming geared to serve adult listeners in the six-county Rochester metropolitan area which its signal covers. The station is the successor to WSAY, a facility founded and built by the late Gordon P. Brown in 1936 as a small local area station with a 250 watt signal on 1210 kHz. As a result of the NARBA agreement it moved to 1240 kHz in 1941. In the pre-war era WSAY became best known as the home of local music programs at a time when its network-affiliated competitors were airing a mix of local news and sports with national drama, comedy and music/variety shows supplied by the NBC and CBS networks. WSAY also was the first station to hire an African-American announcer for a regular shift.
Following World War II WSAY received FCC permission to improve its signal by moving to the regional 1370 kHz frequency. It relocated its transmitter from a downtown Rochester building with rooftop antenna to a modern four-tower plant in suburban Brighton. It increased power first to 1,000 watts and shortly afterward to 5,000 watts full-time. Over the next three decades WSAY operated under a number of formats, from pop standards to top 40 to progressive rock to country. Gordon Brown owned WSAY until his death in 1979, and his estate sold it to the Dickey family (current controlling owners of the nationwide Cumulus radio station group). The Dickeys operated it from 1980 to 1984, also under a variety of formats from personality adult contemporary to country to talk, eventually changing its callsign to WRTK. The license and facility was eventually sold to the WXXI Public Broadcasting Council, and briefly taken dark before its summer 1984 relaunch as WXXI(AM) with a round-the-clock noncommercial format of news, talk and public affairs. The WXXI news and public affairs department produces local newscasts seven days a week and local talk programming every weekday, along with NPR news programming and locally produced documentary and specialty offerings. It currently operates from modern digital studios in the downtown Public Broadcasting Center, and upgraded transmitting facilities at the Brighton location first brought on line by Gordon Brown in 1946. Its programming is simulcast on the HD-2 channel of sister FM station WXXI-FM, and is streamed online 24 hours a day on the station's website. One must register with the website in order to listen to any of the streams. It has also won numerous local, state and national awards for its program offerings.